Focal Points Blog

A Confirmation for Petraeus Is a Confirmation of the Surge Narrative

Petraeus, the SurgeTwo nominees walk into the capital for their confirmation hearings on Tuesday morning. One is a war hero. The other, a lawyer. They meet under the great rotunda to give each other a little pep talk before what promises to be a long day. “I’m sick and tired of hearing about my lack of judicial experience,” the lawyer confesses. “No, problem,” says the war hero. “I have enough experience for the both of us. Take some of mine,” and he sprinkles a little of his experience dust over the top of her head. “Damn it,” says the lawyer, “Now I have a record.”

This conversation is, of course, imaginary. But it does illuminate a real difference between the issue of experience in the hearings to confirm Elena Kagan as Supreme Court justice and David Petraeus as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Kagan has never served as a judge. For this reason, Republican critics have argued that she simply isn’t qualified for the job. But Kagan’s hearings would likely be more heated if she had judicial experience. The very same critics would pore over her record to support their claim that she is just another liberal activist cloaked in a judge’s robe. Thus, experience can be a double-edged sword.

But this isn’t the case for the war hero. The widespread support for Petraeus as McChrystal’s replacement has revolved in large part around the general’s experience in Iraq. Echoing the news reports, in his opening remarks at the confirmation hearings, Senator Carl Levin underscored Petraeus’ “highly experienced leadership.” Other members of the committee followed suit. While several of them asked challenging questions about the current strategy in Afghanistan, nobody critiqued Petraeus’ experience in Iraq.

Experience is not a double-edged sword for Petraeus because of the bi-partisan consensus that the war in Iraq was ultimately a success, if not a victory. This consensus has emerged out of the surge narrative that has become so dominant in discussions of the Iraq War. According to this narrative, when Petraeus took over the war in 2007, he led a strategic revolution in Anbar province, where the Sunni insurgency was strongest. As a result of the counterinsurgency strategy implemented by Petraeus, the insurgency was persuaded to turn against Al Qaeda and throw its lot in with the U.S. The Anbar Awakening, as it is called, was a pivotal turning point in the war, after which the insurgency increasingly lost traction and momentum. Even Obama, who had been a sharp critic of the war in Iraq, has called the surge a success.

Ever since the surge narrative took root, there has been little public debate about the situation in Iraq. Thus, it is no surprise that, instead of an ongoing conflict, Iraq figured into the hearings as an historical event. It mattered only insofar as its success could be applied to Afghanistan. Along these lines, a few senators asked whether there might have been more popular support for the U.S. in Anbar province than in Marja, Afghanistan. But none of them asked whether the success in Anbar has led to long-term stability or effective governance in Iraq. If they had probed into the more recent history of Anbar, they would find a province wracked by political infighting that constantly threatens to self-destruct. The Awakening Party, whose members led the turnaround in 2007, has been accused of intimidation and corruption, and was unable to command the popular vote in last February’s election. Meanwhile, multinational companies are scrambling to get a piece of Anbar’s future oil and gas production, leaving it unclear whether and how the local population will actually benefit. While violence is down, it is far from certain that the Clear-Hold-Build strategy has had lasting success in the region.

When the Judiciary Committee asks a Supreme Court nominee to answer for their judicial decisions, it is less an interrogation of individual qualifications than a provocation for debating deeply engrained differences over the principles and values of our political system. Along the same lines, many progressives hoped that the change in command would prompt a discussion not of Petraeus’ qualifications, but rather, of the guiding principles and values of the war in Afghanistan. So far, the more complicated legacy of the surge in Iraq has been left out of that debate. The erasure of the long-term effects of counterinsurgency in Iraq does not bode well for Afghanistan, where corruption, lack of popular support for the government, and sooner or later, a battle over the country’s newly-discovered natural resources, similarly plagues the war effort. As T.S. Eliot wrote in the wake of the Great War, “We had the experience, but missed the meaning.”

Doesn’t a Spy Need, Like, Secrets?

“The only things missing in more than a decade of operation were actual secrets to send home to Moscow,” reports the New York Times about the accused spies for Russia. Which then beggars the question of whether they’re actually spies. In fact, “none of the 11 people accused in the case face charges of espionage, because in all those years they were never caught sending classified information back to Moscow, American officials said.” More . . .

The assignments, described in secret instructions intercepted by the F.B.I., were to collect routine political gossip and policy talk that might have been more efficiently gathered by surfing the Web.

“What in the world do they think they were going to get out of this, in this day and age?” said Richard F. Stolz, a former head of C.I.A. spy operations and onetime Moscow station chief. “The effort is out of proportion to the alleged benefits. I just don’t understand what they expected.”

What do Focal Pointers think the Russians expected? Kindly let us know in the comments section.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/30/world/europe/30spy.html

The Guns of August in the Middle East?

Pro-Israel rallyDispatches From The Edge

Crazy talk about the Middle East seems to be escalating, backed up by some pretty ominous military deployments. We’ll start with the department of scary statements:

First up, Shabtai Shavit, former chief of the Israeli spy agency Mossad, speaking June 21 at Bar Ilan University, Tel Aviv on why Israel should launch a pre-emptive strike at Iran: “I am of the opinion that, since there is an ongoing war, since the threat is permanent, since the intention of the enemy in this case is to annihilate you, the right doctrine is one of presumption and not retaliation.”

Second up, Uzi Arad, Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security advisor, speaking before the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem June 22 on his belief that the “international community” would support an Israeli strike at Iran: “I don’t see anyone who questions the legality of this or the legitimacy.”

Third up, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi speaking to reporters at the G-8 meeting in Toronto June 26: “Iran is not guaranteeing a peaceful production of nuclear power [so] the members of the G-8 are worried and believe absolutely that Israel will probably react preemptively.”

Fourth up, Central Intelligence Director Leon Panetta predicting on ABC’s “This Week” program June 27 that Iran could have two nuclear weapons by 2012: “We think they [Iran] have enough low-enriched uranium for two weapons…and while there is continuing debate [within Iran] right now about whether or not they ought to proceed with a bomb…they clearly are developing their nuclear capacity.” He went on to say that the U.S. is sharing intelligence with Israelis and that Tel Aviv is “willing to give us the room to be able to try to change Iran diplomatically and culturally and politically.”

A few points:
1) Iran and Israel are not at war, a fact Shavit seems confused about.
2) Since the recent rounds of sanctions aimed at Iran would have lost in the United Nations General Assembly, it unclear who Arad thinks is the “international community.”
3) Berlusconi is a bit of a loose cannon, but he is tight with the Israelis.
4) An Iran that is different “diplomatically and culturally and politically” sounds an awful lot like “regime change.” Is that the “room” Panetta is talking about?

And it isn’t all talk.

Following up the London Times report that Saudi Arabia had given Israel permission to fly through Saudi airspace to attack Iran, the Jerusalem Post, the Islam Times and the Iranian news agency Fars report that the Israeli air force has stockpiled equipment in the Saudi desert near Jordan.

According to the Post, supplies were unloaded June 18 and 19 outside the Saudi city of Tabuk, and all civilian flights into the area were canceled during the two day period. The Post said that an “anonymous American defense official” claimed that Mossad chief Meir Dagan was the contact man with Saudi Arabia and had briefed Netanyahu on the plans.

The Gulf Daily News reported June 26 that Israel has moved warplanes to Georgia and Azerbaijan, which would greatly shorten the distance Israeli planes would have to fly to attack targets in northern Iran.

The U.S currently has two aircraft carriers—the Truman and the Eisenhower—plus more than a dozen support vessels in the Gulf of Hormuz, the strategic choke point leading into the Gulf of Iran.

The Saudis have vigorously denied the reports they are aiding the Israelis, and Shafeeq Ghabra, president of the American University of Kuwait, says, “It would be impossible for the Saudis to allow an Israeli attack on Iran.”

But Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Ramat Gan, Israel, argues that Saudi Arabia and Israel both fear a nuclear-armed Iran. “This brings us together on a strategic level in that we have common interests. Since the Arab world and Saudi Arabia understand that President Obama is a weak person, maybe they decided to facilitate this happening.” He also said the story might not be true because “I don’t think the Saudis want to burden themselves with this kind of cooperation with Israel.”

According to military historian Martin van Creveld, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, “The real fear is that someone will get carried away by his own rhetoric and fear mongering” and start a war. He also thinks, however, that Israel should not take a preemptive strike “off the table.”

Trita Parsi of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington argues that the escalation of rhetoric is dangerous. “When you have that kind of political environment, you are leaving yourself no space to find another solution,” he told the Christian Science Monitor. “You may very well end up in a situation where you are propelled to act, even though you understand it is an unwise action, but [do so] for political reasons.”

The rhetoric is getting steamy, the weapons are moving into position, and it is beginning to feel like “The Guns of August”* in the Middle East.

*For those too young to remember, The Guns of August, published in 1962, is a history of the first month of World War I. It earned its author, Barbara Tuchman, a Pulitzer Prize.

Burma’s Junta Built to Last

In the aftermath of the apparent transfer of nuclear technology and know-how from North Korea to Burma, the latter, reports Bertil Lintner at Asia Times Online, could soon be penalized with more international sanctions.

The prospect of that happening — and already deep dissatisfaction over the close relationship with a pariah regime like Pyongyang . . . is reportedly stoking resentment among the Myanmar officer corps. Other officers like Sai Thein Win [who provided the Democratic Voice of Burma with photographs and documents] may therefore be waiting in the wings for an opportunity to defect and shed more light on Myanmar’s deep and dark nuclear secrets. [To them] Myanmar’s experiments with nuclear technology and missiles amount to little more than a waste of money in a country that desperately needs more funds dedicated to public health and education.

But don’t elections scheduled for October offer hope of reform? In a review of a biography of the junta’s leader, Gen. Than Shwe, elsewhere at Asia Times Online, Lintner writes . . .

A new generation of pundits. … believe a hitherto unknown generation of Young Turks and other supposed closet liberals within the military will come to the fore and push the country in a more democratic direction. … In all likelihood, however, foreign pundits will be proven wrong yet again. Benedict Rogers’ highly readable new book [Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant] shows why Myanmar’s military, even with Than Shwe’s imminent retirement, has no intention of giving up power any time soon.

At Irrawaddy, Aung Zaw explains.

In an interview with a US television journalist on April 14, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong predicted that Burma’s ruling generals will not easily give up power. … “If they are out, it’s not just that the country and the government have changed, bu ‘Where do I go and which jail would I be in and [what about] my children and my jewels and my billions?’” he said. … [Than Shwe's] real concern is likely to be the loyalty of young army officers [who] may come to the fore in reshaping Burma as their roles change between being members of the armed forces or parliament. … [He] must ensure that his most trusted lieutenants take over the reins of both the new government and the armed forces so that his family and fortune will be protected.

Lintner sums up. “Whether Myanmar holds elections this year, next year, or never, all the structures he put in place signal that the military is geared to remain in power for the foreseeable future.”

Afghanistan by the Book — THE Book, That Is

It’s no secret that the Obama administration has struggled from the beginning to find a coherent narrative to support the Afghan war it inherited. Or to craft an even remotely coherent strategy. (Other than how to shift the blame when the whole thing implodes.)

But now that General David Petraeus is assuming command, hearts seem suddenly light. There is a sense – or at least a claim – that new leadership in the field will somehow transform an otherwise bleak and worsening situation. This sense is shared across party lines, and it appears likely that Petraeus will be unanimously confirmed in his new role by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

It seems appropriate, therefore, to reread Gen. Petraeus’ seminal work, Field Manual 3-24, to get a sense of how he might undertake this transformation. (FM 3-24 is the counterinsurgency guide for the US military. Along with FM 3-24.2, Tactics In Counterinsurgency, it details what every US soldier, from private to four-star is supposed to know about COIN.)

If Afghanistan is, in fact, a COIN engagement – and we must assume POTUS believes it is, since he has nominated a man perceived to be America’s foremost COIN expert to lead it – then he should be using the best available COIN guidelines to assess it. Presumably that would be FM 3-24, so I’ve taken the liberty of extracting key points to use as metrics. The number and italicized sections below are lifted directly from FM 3-24. The snarky (excuse me, I mean insightful) commentary is mine.

1-4. Long-term success in COIN depends on the people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to the government’s rule.

Er . . . then actually having a functioning ‘Host Nation’ government is a necessary precondition for success?

1-10. For the reasons just mentioned, maintaining security in an unstable environment requires vast resources, whether host nation, U.S., or multinational.

You mean vast, as in hundreds of thousands of troops, similar numbers of development personnel and the cash to fund it all?

1-30. Protracted conflicts favor insurgents, and no approach makes better use of that asymmetry than the protracted popular war.

Nine years and counting. Might be a good time to ask which team has the deeper bench.

1-113. The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government.

Oh. Whoops.

1-116. Six possible indicators of legitimacy that can be used to analyze threats to stability include the following:

  • The ability to provide security for the populace (including protection from internal and external threats).
  • Selection of leaders at a frequency and in a manner considered just and fair by a substantial majority of the populace.
  • A high level of popular participation in or support for political processes.
  • A culturally acceptable level of corruption.
  • A culturally acceptable level and rate of political, economic, and social development.
  • A high level of regime acceptance by major social institutions.

How many points do you get for ‘none of the above’?

1-121. Unity of effort must be present at every echelon of a COIN operation.

Ah, man, even the VP, those weenies over at State and the National Security Advisor?

1-131. The cornerstone of any COIN effort is establishing security for the civilian populace.

Right. Remind me how many of those provinces were rated as ‘fully secure’ in the April 2010 review? As I recall, the exact number was, umm . . . is zero a number?

1-134. Insurgencies are protracted by nature. Thus, COIN operations always demand considerable expenditures of time and resources.

Roger that. Just so long as the pull date is before the next election.

Well, shucks. Color me cynical.

In the wildland fire biz we used a quick and dirty little algorithm called TREAT to decide whether to fight or flee. I think it might apply here, too.

  • Time
  • Resources
  • Experience
  • Attitude
  • Training

The rule was, if you had any three or more, it was a good decision to stand and fight. Any fewer, and it was time to remove your crews from danger.

Using that for AfPak, I’d give the US about 1.2. Pretty good on attitude, fair on training (for that specific environment), way short of time, resources and experience.

The US cannot commit to the 10 to 20 year time frame (starting today!) that is likely necessary to actually succeed. Nor can it come close to putting the necessary number of troops in the field. (Estimated at over 1.4 million with the classic troop density of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 population. Yeah, you can count the locals, but at this point, the ANA and ANP are so bad they would have to be subtracted from the total, not added.) And – key point – in terms of experience, the US has yet to win a classical counterinsurgency fight. (Sorry, Iraq doesn’t count. It wasn’t true COIN, and the US did not win. For an explanation, see Fourth Generation Warfare in a Fifth Generation Conflict.)

Bottom line? Time to run.

Excuse me. I mean ‘strategically redeploy’.

Would You Trust a Country That Named Its First Nuke Test ‘Smiling Buddha’?

Smiling BuddhaOne sure route for a state to be slapped with the label “rogue ” is to develop nuclear weapons but shun the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Pakistan refused to sign while North Korea signed but withdrew. Israel dodged the NPT by refusing to acknowledge it even developed nuclear weapons. We’ll leave Iran out of the equation because, despite constantly testing the International Atomic Energy Agency’s limits, it doesn’t seem to have completed the process.

But, like Israel, another state developed nuclear weapons before the NPT (though without refusing to acknowledging them), and refrained from signing the treaty. In fact, the case could be made that it’s more of a rogue than any of the other states. Oddly, it’s the state with a reputation for being the most spiritual in the world since it’s the birthplace of both Hinduism and Buddhism — India, of course. Yet it (or its rulers and policymakers at the time) were seemingly out of touch with said spiritualism to such an extent that in 1974 they code-named India’s first nuclear test the Smiling Buddha. They even scheduled it for the day on which the Buddha’s birth is celebrated in India. This was only the start.

The founder of the Military Space Transparency Project, Matthew Hoey writes:

In 1998 U.S. sanctions were placed upon the country in response to more nuclear tests. When the Bush Administration lifted the aforementioned sanctions against India in the wake of . . . September 11, 2001, and then progressively loosened export and commerce laws against India, it ignored [India's refusal to sign not only the NPT, but] the Proliferation Security Initiative . . . the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty . . . or the Missile Technology Control Regime.

[In 2008] the United States approached the Nuclear Suppliers Group . . . to grant a waiver to India to commence civilian nuclear trade. … The implementation of this waiver makes India the only known country with nuclear weapons which is not a party to the Non Proliferation Treaty . . . but is still allowed to carry out nuclear commerce with the rest of the world. [Emphasis added.]

It’s bad enough that the United States and the Nuclear Suppliers Group made India their pet rogue. But, Hoey writes, “It is also highly unlikely that India will subscribe to the treaty to Prevent an Arms Race in Outer Space.” Even worse, “Indian military officials have set a target date to deploy an ambitious anti-satellite system. … for electronic or physical destruction of satellites . . . by 2015.”

In conclusion, Hoey writes, “At a time when the international spotlight seems trained on North Korea and Iran, a growing tolerance for India’s belligerence in building its nuclear and missile capabilities appears to shield it from similar scrutiny.”

Why the tolerance? As Andrew Lichterman and M.V. Ramana write in Beyond Arms Control (2010, Critical Will), “. . . the nuclear deal is part of a broader set of [U.S.-Indian] agreements [which] US-based multinationals are . . . hoping to use . . . as a wedge to further open India to foreign investment and sales.”

In the end, just more reasons that the Non-Aligned Nation movement (to which India supposedly belongs) can’t take the nuclear powers seriously about disarmament.

Are Nuclear Weapons ‘Realists’ Afraid to Confront Reality?

It’s notoriously difficult to win a debate with nuclear realists over disarmament. Just try pulling the rug of reasoning out from under deterrence or the argument that the smaller the U.S. arsenal becomes, the easier it would make smaller nations to become the military equal of the United States. But in a Washington Post op-ed Sunday, Barry Blechman and Alex Bollfrass of the Stimson Center present a case for the abolition of nuclear weapons strong enough to stop realists — if not hawks — in their tracks.

In the 5 myths about getting rid of the bomb, the author’s list realist objections to nuclear disarmament.

  1. We can’t eliminate nukes because countries would cheat and build them in secret.
  2. Nuclear weapons are a guarantee of security.
  3. As long as there is nuclear energy, there will be nuclear weapons.
  4. If all nations dismantled their nuclear arsenals, a cheater with just a few weapons could rule the world.
  5. Nuclear weapons are the only way to become a global power.

To give you an example of the authors’ logic, read their answer to number four:

We’ve all seen James Bond villains threaten to gain world domination with a single nuclear weapon. But even if an evil despot could secretly build a few bombs, what would he gain? He couldn’t use them to win a war. It would take hundreds of weapons to destroy dispersed armies, as Cold War-era NATO and Soviet plans for nuclear conflict in Europe recognized.

The cheater could try to coerce the rest of the world by threatening a nuclear attack, but even that wouldn’t lead to lasting domination. Other nations could try to destroy the nuclear arsenal preemptively with conventionally armed long-range strikes. If that failed, they could invade with conventional forces, under the protection of air and missile defenses. In a worst-case scenario, the former nuclear powers could rebuild their arsenals in less than a year. The world would be no worse off than it was before disarming.

Today, James Bond-style villains have been replaced by terrorists. If terrorists acquired a nuclear bomb, the results could be catastrophic — but terrorists can’t be deterred with nuclear weapons. This brings us full circle: The only real solution to the threat of nuclear terrorism is to eliminate nuclear weapons, thereby ensuring that they will stay out of the hands of terrorists.

Focal Points readers are urged to read the rest of Bollfrass and Blechman’s op-ed and venture a guess in our comments section as to whether “realists” can be made to understand that, when it comes to nuclear weapons, there may be a reality more real than realism.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/25/AR2010062502157.html

G20′s Central Role? As a Lightning Rod

G8The G20 is going to be around for some time. But it will probably be as ineffective as the G8 in stabilizing global capitalism. Probably the main accomplishment of the G8 was to focus attention on itself as some sort of executive committee of global capitalism, the existence of which drew hundreds of thousands of protesters to Genoa in June 2001, an delegitimizing event from which the group never recovered.

The G20, a Clinton era initiative that was rescued from oblivion by Bush II at the beginning of the latest financial crisis and later promoted by Obama to coordinate global capitalism’s response to the crisis is classic cooptation: bring in the big boys from the South like China, India, and Brazil, along with a few others, to give them a strong stake in the current global system. But as they assemble in Toronto, the group is divided, over the extent of financial regulation and over whether or not to continue the stimulus programs that are pushing so many governments to register massive fiscal deficits. Endorsement of minimal financial regulation and an informal agreement to disagree over the stimulus question are likely to be the vapid results of this latest summit of the world’s so-called powerhouse economies. The structural fissures of global capital have become too great to be papered over by this presumptive executive committee.

But hey, the protesters have been given another opportunity to assemble against the ailing system of globalized capitalism, like we were by the London summit in 2008 and the Pittsburgh meeting in September 2009. Nothing beats the G20 meeting as a centralized focus of anti-capitalist protest.

Ironically, this has become the main function of the G8 and G20 meetings: to unite global opinion against an outmoded system of economic organization and advance the process of delegitimizing it. Let’s turn Toronto into another Genoa, but let’s hope this is not the last G20 Summit.

U.S. Men’s World Cup Team Rides a Wave of Jingoism

US fans

Everyone seems to be gushing about the U.S. Men’s World Cup soccer team. Fans are jumping and hugging in streets and bars across the country. Men are actually admitting to shedding tears. And commentators keep talking about what the last-gasp victory over Algeria says about the “national character.”

“These were Americans doing something recognizable,” wrote New York Times soccer columnist George Vecsey, linking the goalscorer, Landon Donovan, and his teammates with iconic athletes Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter, “something Americans have seen before.”

“American athletes would never give up,” was the lesson Vecsey drew from the match.

Vecsey and others have likewise read the victory, and the team, as symbols of an idyllic melting pot nation. One blogger, who calls himself the “renegade sportsman,” was particularly effusive:

Call it, perhaps, a protean, republican spirit of inclusion through merit. The pile-up on Donovan after his goal involved Hispanic dudes, white dudes, black dudes—even a Scottish dude. It was a fleshy amalgamation produced by a country that has always been polyglot and multihued.

And then there are the oft-quoted, hazily poetic words of U.S. midfielder DaMarcus Beasley (whom I happen to like and hope gets to play more), who is suddenly being compared to Whitman, Dickinson, and Louis Armstrong: “We bring something to the table, the American people as a whole.”

Understandable words from a member of a team that has rarely been taken seriously by the international soccer world. But as exegesis on a nation (that is so often, and so tellingly, mistaken for a hemisphere)? (Then again, I’m sure many Iraqis and Afghans would agree that U.S. Americans bring something to the table.)

The U.S. team is not an allegory for the nation. The team and its victory are not signs of some unique “American character” that we have and that no one else possesses. They are not symbols of an inclusive, meritocratic melting pot nation (which has somehow, magically erased its history of slavery, genocide, and imperial expansion, as well as its present day reality of ongoing racism, war, impoverishment, and inequality).

The team is just that. A team of 23 men and their coaches and trainers who have, despite some nervous moments, done rather well in the first round of the world’s largest sporting event-cum-platform for nationalist dreaming and global capitalism.

The rest is pure mythmaking and nationalist dribble (pardon the pun).

Indeed the World Cup, by its very modus operandi of pitting teams said to represent nations against one another, encourages such mythmaking and nationalist hyperbole. I get caught up in the emotion of the World Cup as much, if not more, than the average “American.” But when the crowd at the stadium, at the bar, in the streets starts chanting “USA! USA! USA!” maybe we should think twice about the seemingly instinctive, but very much conditioned, nationalist ritual we’re participating in.

Maybe at such a moment it might be worth thinking about those like the distraught Algerian goalie, Rais M’Bolhi, who conceded Donovan’s goal, after bravely turning aside everything that had come his way? Who couldn’t feel terrible for him? Was the goal some sign of the Algerian national character?

Before a difficult match against Ghana (and, if the U.S. team is lucky, other difficult match(es) ahead), perhaps it’s worth considering, in a game that inevitably entail wins and losses, why it is that we only see our victories—and never our defeats—as a sign of our national character?

Pavlovian Congress Jumps to Israel’s ‘Self-’ Defense

Gaza FlotillaPosted as a complement to Stephen Zunes’s Foreign Policy in Focus piece Israel’s Dubious Investigation of Flotilla Attack.

In a letter to President Barack Obama date June 17, 329 out of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives referred to Israel’s May 31 attack on a humanitarian aid flotilla in international waters, which resulted in the deaths of nine passengers and crew and injuries to scores of others, as an act of “self-defense” which they “strongly support.” Similarly, a June 21 Senate lettersigned by 87 out of 100 senators — went on record “fully” supporting what it called “Israel’s right to self-defense,” claiming that the widely supported effort to relieve critical shortages of food and medicine in the besieged Gaza Strip was simply part of a “clever tactical and diplomatic ploy” by “Israel’s opponents” to “challenge its international standing.”

The House letter urged President Obama “to remain steadfast in defense of Israel” in the face of the near-universal international condemnation of this blatant violation of international maritime law and other legal statutes, which the signatories referred to as “a rush to unfairly judge and defend Israel.” The Senate letter condemned the near-unanimous vote of the UN Human Rights Council for what it called “singling out” Israel, even though no other country in recent memory has attacked a humanitarian aid flotilla in international waters. Both letters called upon the United States to veto any resolution in the UN Security Council criticizing the Israeli attack.

What is perhaps most disturbing is that many of the key arguments in the letters were misleading and, in some cases, factually inaccurate.

The Israeli government had acknowledged prior to the writing of the letter that the extensive blockade of humanitarian goods was not necessary for their security, but as a means of pressuring the civilian population to end their support for Hamas, which won a majority of legislative seats in the most recent Palestinian election. In addition, the Israeli government announced a significant relaxation of the embargo two days after the letter was written. Despite this, the House letter claimed that the purpose of the blockade was “to stop terrorists from smuggling weapons to kill innocent civilians,” thereby placing this large bipartisan majority of the House even further to the right than Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s rightist coalition.

There was no mention in the letter than no such weapons were found on board any of the six ships hijacked by the Israelis nor on the previous eight ships the Free Gaza Campaign had sailed or attempted to sail to the Gaza Strip. In addition, even though the ships had been thoroughly inspected by customs officials prior to their disembarkation, the House letter claimed that had the Israelis not hijacked the ships, they would have “sailed unchecked into Gaza.”

Similarly, according to the Senate letter, Israel’s naval blockade was necessary “to keep dangerous goods from entering Gaza by sea” and falsely claimed that the intent of the Israeli blockade was “to protect Israel, while allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza.” Particularly striking is the fact that, despite that the International Committee on the Red Cross and a broad consensus of international legal experts recognize that the Israeli blockade of humanitarian goods is illegal, the Senate letter insisted that the blockade “is legal under international law.”

The House letter insisted, despite the fact that several of those killed on the Mavi Marmara were shot at point blank range in the back or the back of the head and a video showing a 19-year old U.S. citizen shot execution style on the ground, that “Israeli forces used necessary force as an act of self-defense and of last resort.” Similarly, the Senate letter refers to the murders of passengers and crew resisting the illegal boarding of their vessel in international waters as a situation where the Israeli raiders were “forced to respond to that attack” when they “arrived” on the ship.

The House letter also claimed that the other ships were “commandeered peacefully and without incident,” even though on the other ships, despite completely nonviolent resistance, passengers were tasered and brutally beaten and were attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets. Similarly, the Senate letter insisted that, in spite of these potentially fatal beatings and other assaults, “Israeli forces were able to safely divert five of the six ships challenging the blockade.”

Even though the Israeli government has never entered Gaza to disperse aid to the people of that territory since the start of the siege years earlier and reputable relief organizations have documented that the Israelis had routinely refused to allow humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip, these House members claimed that Israel had offered to “disperse the aid . . . directly to the people of Gaza.” And, despite the fact that the five aid ships that Israel had allowed to dock in Gaza in previous months had distributed their humanitarian cargo directly to those in need, the senators claimed that it would have otherwise gone “into the hands of corrupt Gaza officials.”

Learning what actually transpired in the tragic incident was apparently of little interest to the 87 senators who signed the letter defending the attack. Despite the apparent whitewash forthcoming in the internal Israeli investigation, the senate letter supported Israel’s alleged intention to carry out “a thorough investigation of the incident,” insisting that Israel “has the right to determine how its investigation is conducted.” This comes in spite of a recent public opinion poll shows a clear majority of Americans — including 65 percent of Democrats — favor an international inquiry over allowing Israel alone to investigate the circumstances of the attack .

Ironically, a number of progressive organizations, web sites and list serves have called on the peace and human rights community to support the re- election of some of the very senators who signed this letter, including Barbara Boxer, Ron Wyden, and Russell Feingold. MoveOn, Council for a Livable World, and other progressive groups with PAC money have been are calling on their members, many of whom are peace and human rights activists, to donate their money to these right-wing Democrats who defend attacking peace and human rights activists and lie about the circumstances to justify it. They have no problems with supporting the re-election of those who lie and mislead their constituents in order to defend illegal actions by allied right-wing governments, even when they kill and injure participants in a humanitarian flotilla on the high seas.

There may be an underlying current of racism at work here. It is unlikely MoveOn, Council for a Livable World and other groups would defend such actions if, for example, if the activists were helping those under siege in Sarajevo in the 1990s or West Berlin in the 1940s, who happened to be white Europeans.

It is important to remember that the majority of Democrats joined in with Republicans in supporting the Salvadoran junta in the early 1980s and the Suharto regime in the 1990s until voters made clear they would withdraw their support from them if they did not change their policy. AIPAC and other right-wing “pro-Israel” groups are only as powerful as the absence of counter-pressure from the peace and human rights community. Letters like these will continue to be supported by most Democrats only as long they know they can get away with it.

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